The Birds advanced to the Singapore Cup final in splendid fashion, as what was widely hailed to be an intently-contested semifinals saw Grilled prevail by four goals. Ropelearner FC must justly feel hard done by the margin, if not the loss itself and end of their incredible eighteen-match winning streak, but football as ever is a game of very fine distinctions - and it smiled on the team in green today.
Near a hundred thousand massed downtown at de-facto national stadium Undiscovered Paradise, despite the unencouragingly grey skies, as the two remaining Jurong representatives finally met. Having taken the scalps of no less than three top division sides in their storied Cup run, and with the addition of Henning Queiss in central midfield, it was frankly hard to come up with a reason for how Ropelearner could be beaten.
Grilled did offer something that their last three Cup opponents didn't, however - an unapologetically attacking approach. This was reflected in the lineup that had Abdul bin Jantan
on the bench, with the flamboyant but tactically-suspect Low Aik Jia
picked for the left wing. Once Wong Ping Shun
advanced unhesitatingly upon kick-off, the stage was set; Grilled were going to hammer their way through, or die trying.
This was, certainly, a perilous strategy at the best of times, against the proven midfield strength of Ropelearner, and the organizational savvy of their head coach. Adding credence to this line of thought, the nominal hosts fired the first salvo, with Lee Keong Hui dragging a warning only a couple of metres wide within five minutes.
The Birds' one-track mindset can however be fearsome when it comes off, and after eighteen minutes, Low showed just why Niculae Stanca
took the risk of starting him. In a side populated by mature players nearing or at their prime, the 22 year-old is the clear "kid brother
", but it was just this sometimes-unwarranted optimism of youth that provided the critical breakthrough.
His more experienced colleagues would almost certainly have decided to pass after getting into space and pulling two men to themselves, but Low instead surged forward with irrepressible hope. On another day, Elvis Floris would have inserted himelf between Low and the ball and that would have been it, but this time the sheer audacity of the dribble slowed Floris for a second, and this was all Low required to veer clear and chip Frans Kopola quite fearlessly.
With Ropelearner dominating the balance of play before that, the goal came as huge relief to the Grilled half of the galleries, and it got even better five minutes later. Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
, fresh off a hat-trick against Kang Xi Lai Le, engaged in a test of strength with Walerian Tadel on the edge of the penalty area, and after some pushing from both participants, stumbled and dropped to the ground.
Ropelearner supporters cheered as the victorious Tadel scooted off with the ball, only to go silent in disbelief as linesman Alejandro Cenoz flagged for an infringement. After a short consultation, referee Per Johansson pointed to the spot, causing the stands to explode into outroar, if for two very different reasons.
The Ropelearner players surrounded the referee, but that has seldom helped matters, and it was down to Frans Kopola to set this wrong straight by skill. Of course, Wong Ping Shun
was always in the driving seat, and while Kopola correctly guessed that Wong would strike it to his preferred left side, the force behind the hit meant that it went in irregardless.
They had a second chance to correct that injustice, as the referee awarded a rather soft free-kick just outside Grilled's own area, perhaps in part recompense for the earlier decision. Former Estonian national winger Deivi Ninassarvik seemed to have done it with his magnificent curler around the wall... only for Wong Tian Han
to prove his value with a no less outstanding save.
This was all too much for Ropelearner's head coach Mohd Khairol Anuar Ahmad, who was not shy about applying fixes - now needing at least two goals to go through, out went Tadel, and in came well-travelled Chinese striker Zhou Jiajun, who has Golden Boots from Switzerland and Belgium to his name.
Of course, this was a gamble on their part as well, but it did at least contribute to Low's yellow card, as the youngster made it his business to interfere with the newcomer. His work ethic brought him an appreciative head-rub from senior Zhao Jing Wei
, though, which Low received with more pride than discomfiture.
It was Zhao who would produce a third on Grilled's next serious attack, which saw the Birds play keep-ball in the middle despite the wingers calling quite audibly for it. Ropelearner's wingbacks were confused as to whether they should stay wide, and that decision was taken from them when Chow Ying Lee
spearheaded a charge right down the middle, before leaving it for Zhao to blast it with surgical precision from the corner of the box.
The Ropelearner half of the stadium had turned into a morgue as Grilled successfully protected their quite unlikely three-goal advantage to half-time, and in a departure from usual practice, Stanca insisted that the players stay on the sidelines for the break. His pep talk, conducted in public, centered about a single, simple theme - don't think that you've won it - with heavy reference to The Void Deck's 4-3 rally against Young Tigers on Sunday.
With that done, the Birds players awaited the return of their opponents, and it seemed that Stanca's unorthodox speech had worked. It was Grilled who got up to speed first, and with Ropelearner engaged in a race against time as well, gaps inevitably opened up when they were forced on the defensive, and Zhu Changchun
put Grilled 4-0 up after a slide-rule pass from Chow.
A few of the Ropelearner fans had had enough at this point, but to their credit the vast majority stayed to witness their team being thrown a lifeline. This time, Low's impulsiveness worked against him, as a more collected player would well recognize that the time to commit a handball and save your side from only a probable shot is not
when you're four goals up. The referee flashed him a second yellow for the clear-cut offence, and the distraught Low was off.
A match that had been drifting towards drabness was suddenly reawakened, and Ropelearner threatened what would have been a comeback for the ages as they scored from the restart. Ninassarvik pumped it into the Grilled area, where Ropelearner's aerial prowess won the ball - the Birds threw bodies around, but finally Joren Coucke got the foot of space he needed to square it to Lee Keong Hui, who put it in an empty net.
With the biggest game of their lives at stake, both coaches sprang up and animatedly yelled instructions right on the sidelines, with the previously-quietened Ropelearner fans getting behind their team with vigour. The Grilled section responded, but with a hint of reservation, as they were well aware of just how precarious even a three-goal lead could be with their infamous defence.
Unexpectedly, though, the Birds halted Ropelearner's nascent revival dead in its tracks. This was perhaps as they had never deviated from their original plan, while their opponents were trying to make an unfamiliar formation work under severe pressure. In such circumstances, it was probably not too surprising that Grilled continued manufacturing chances, and captain Tian Yonghang
needled one of them in the 59th minute.
Even the most fanatic of Ropelearner's diehards could not help but be affected by that, and despite having a number of slick combinations, they never really came close to closing the deficit after that. In fact, had Woon Shun An
kept his 67th minute effort slightly down, Grilled would have departed with the quite uncommon record of having all five of their midfielders on the scoresheet!